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NATO convoy escapes Kabul blast as Taliban remain silent on offer to hold peace talks

A bomb aimed at a NATO military convoy killed one civilian and wounded four others Friday on a major highway just outside the Afghan capital, police said, but the blast failed to damage its target as the line of armored vehicles sped past in light traffic during the weekly Muslim prayer day.

Afghan officials said the blast originated inside a vehicle, and that it damaged numerous buildings nearby. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bombing was the second here in a week, following a suicide attack Feb. 24 that killed three civilians and wounded a dozen others. In that attack, a young man carrying a backpack filled with explosives struck in the fortified “green zone” of Kabul that houses foreign embassies and Afghan security facilities. The same day, two suicide bombings in Helmand province left at least three Afghan soldiers dead.

The two city blasts were much less deadly than the horrific spree of insurgent violence in January that killed more than 150 people in three attacks on a hotel, a military academy and a downtown block. Nevertheless, they sent a defiant message of continued insurgent aggression despite a dramatic new peacemaking offer from President Ashraf Ghani to the Taliban.

At an international conference here Wednesday, Ghani pledged to hold “unconditional” peace talks with the Afghan insurgents, offered them recognition as a political group and said his government would provide their representatives with passports and an office in Kabul. He proposed a cease-fire, a prisoner swap, Taliban participation in elections and a review of the Afghan constitution, which the insurgents have demanded.

The Afghan president’s expansive offer came in sharp contrast to the angry, vengeful comments he made after the deadly series of attacks in January. That emotional response echoed the reaction of President Trump in Washington, who said he now rejected peace talks with the insurgents despite endorsing them in the past as vital to ending the 16-year war.

“We are making this offer without preconditions, in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani told officials from 25 countries who had met to discuss how to resolve the conflict. He said he was doing so in order to “save the country,” where 10,000 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence last year, and that he would not “pre-judge” any group interested in peace.

The Taliban have not formally responded to Ghani’s offer, which was welcomed enthusiastically by the gathered officials. But they have sent a variety of signals in recent days to various intermediaries and audiences, including press outlets and Afghan experts, while continuing to insist they will not negotiate unless foreign troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Two weeks ago, Taliban leaders issued an unusual written appeal to the “American people,” asking them to pressure U.S. officials to end the conflict and asserting that the protracted American “occupation” had brought only death, corruption and drugs to the impoverished country.

The letter, emailed to the media, used an academic tone and cited international statistics to show the the human and economic costs of the war. In parts it reverted to a more familiar accusatory message, calling U.S. officials “war-mongers” and usurpers.

“Prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else,” the letter said.

While insisting that “our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues,” the letter also warned that Taliban forces “cannot be subdued by sheer force” and that seeking a peaceful solution does not mean “that we are exhausted or our will has been sapped.”

Constable reported from Islamabad, Pakistan.

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